Always click on the LEGENDARY SURFERS icon to return to this homepage. LEGENDARY SURFERS
A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By  Malcolm Gault-Williams

This Chapter Updated:  7 January 2008

Tom Blake (1902-1994)

Blake at Malibu

Aloha! And welcome to this chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS Series. This chapter covers the Twentieth Century's greatest surfing innovator and lifestyle pioneer: Tom Blake. Next to Duke Kahanamoku, no one had as great an impact on surfing in the 1900s as did Tom Blake.

Special Mahalos to Tom's friend and primary biographer Gary Lynch; also to Spencer Croul and the Surfing Heritage Foundation, keepers of the Blake Archives. Both Gary and Spencer provided the images used in this chapter and Gary provided invaluable corrections to the original.

Importantly, Gary spearheaded a team of us to produce the definitive Blake biography: "TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman." You can still find this precident-setting volume at There are links at the bottom of this page to take you where you need to go.

Last but second only to "TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman," is "LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 2: Early 20th Century Surfing and Tom Blake":



  • Accomplishments
  • Introduction by Gary Lynch
  • Beginnings, 1902-1921
  • Santa Monica, 1921-24
  • Waikiki, 1924-25
  • Malibu First Ridden, 1926
  • Ancient Templates, 1926
  • Drilled-Hole Hollow Boards, 1926-29
  • Blake's Cigar, 1929
  • Hollow Victory, 1930
  • Ka-lehua-wehe Surf, 1930s
  • Surfer Lifestyle Pioneer
  • The Skeg, 1935
  • Blake's Influence
  • Hollow Board Refinements
  • Lifesaving Equipment
  • Surfers of Blake's Day
  • Surfing Elements of Blake's Day
  • Tandem Surfing
  • Full Moon Surfing
  • Contests
  • You ARE Who You Hang With
  • Later Years
  • Resources

    Tom Blake Accomplishments:

  • 1922 - set the world swimming record in the ten mile open.
  • 1926 - first person to surf Malibu, along with Sam Reid.
  • 1926 - invented the hollow surfboard.
  • 1928 - won the first Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship.
  • 1928 - invented the hollow paddleboard.
  • 1929 - invented the water-proof camera housing.
  • 1931 - invented the sailboard.
  • 1931 - patented & manufactured the first production surfboard.
  • 1932 - won the Catalina Paddleboard Race.
  • 1935 - invented the surfboard fin, a.k.a. skeg, or keel.
  • 1935 - published the first book solely devoted to surfing, Hawaiian Surfboard.
  • 1937 - produced & patented the first torpedo buoy and rescue ring, both made of "dua-aluminum"
  • 1940s - first production sailboards.
  • Leader in physical fitness, natural foods and healthy diet.
  • Virtually began the surfing lifestyle as we know it.

  • Introduction by Gary Lynch

    Tom Blake is the obvious link between the ancient South Pacific waterman and the twentieth century Anglo waterman. Not only did he precede most other Anglo visitors to Hawaii that surfed, he understood and adopted the Aloha frame-of-mind and possessed the unique ability to produce water craft in harmony with the previous one thousand years of surfing's progression.

    Blake placed surfboards, paddleboards, and life saving equipment within reach of the interested athlete, lifeguard, and seaside visitor. In Blake's life, there was no separation between religion, surfing, swimming, building surfboards, eating, and exercise. At the time, no one guessed that his unorthodox life style would one day become the accepted standard for the beach culture.

    Blake's early published work, both word and photographic, awoke new generations of surfers and educated them to the vast richness of their surfing heritage. His pioneering efforts continue to inspire today's surfers with the knowledge that their lifestyle is one firmly seated in traditions both intelligent and legitimate for generations to come.

    -- Gary Lynch, November 1999

    Beginnings, 1902-1921

    Outside Duke Kahanamoku, the "Father of Modern Surfing," no other single individual had more impact on surf riding in the first half of this century than did Thomas Edward Blake, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 8, 1902. Blake left us in 1994 at the age of 92.

    Eleven months after his birth, his mother died of tuberculosis. "His grief-stricken father sent Tom to be raised by a series of relatives," wrote surf writer Chris Ahrens in a 1994 memorial to Blake. "Blake seems to have adapted well to what we would now call a dysfunctional family. He stayed out of trouble and found solace in water, swimming pools mostly, where he hung out, and excelled in the speed and distance department."

    Blake's life changed forever in 1920, when Duke Kahanamoku stopped in Detroit. Duke was on his way back from winning his gold medal at the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Austria. This one particular night, Duke and a group of fellow Hawaiian swimmers went out to a Detroit theatre to view their swimming in a talkie newsreel show.

    "I, too, had come to see the film," wrote Blake, "and I was so impressed when I found myself near this champion that I intercepted him in the theatre lobby and asked to shake his hand." At that time, Blake had no idea that within a few short years, he and Duke would be standing side-by-side as surfing brothers and friendly competitors in major swimming and paddling races.

    A minor during most of World War I, Tom Blake began traveling at age 17. Beginning in 1919, he wandered through the country for a couple of years, riding railroad trains and working at odd jobs in New York, Florida and eventually California in September 1921. He became a regular at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where the 20 year-old Blake was soon recognized as a gifted "natural" swimmer. Within less than a year, Blake set the world record in the ten mile open, at an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in July 1922.

    Santa Monica, 1921-24

    Despite the ravages of World War I, the period following the war was rich in Western culture. In 1921 alone, D.H. Lawrence published Women In Love; Ezra Pound was still creating brilliant poems; Rafael Sabatini's pirate adventure Scaramouche was a best seller and; Die Walküre was the first Wagnerian opera to be staged at the Paris Opéra since before the war.

    Going near unnoticed, a German politico by the name of Adolf Hitler was beginning to cause trouble in Germany, as his "storm troopers" (SA) began to terrorize political opponents.

    "I first rode California surf in 1921," wrote Tom Blake in his 1935 classic Hawaiian Surfboard, the first book to devote itself to surfboards and surfriding.

    "The Vultee boys started around that time," Blake continued. "Preston Peterson, I saw ride a first break wave at Ocean Park about 1924, when he was nine years old. He had been riding several years then... [by] 1933 Peterson was the best on the Pacific Coast and his cleverness is equal to the best at Waikiki."

    Living in Santa Monica, Blake worked as a lifeguard, a swimming instructor, and later as a movie stunt double. "Don't forget," Gary Lynch reminded me, "long before Peterson, Blake started working in the movies [1922] because of his water talent, building the first trail for the rest of the surfing pack to later take advantage of."

    It was while working as a lifeguard at the Santa Monica Swimming Club that Blake uncovered the redwood plank he first surfed on. "Like all of the boards of the day," wrote Gary, "this one was heavy and cumbersome. With nobody around to teach him, he paddled the board out to sea" and attempted to catch a wave. "He took a big pearl dive and it freaked him out. He did not try again for a month or two." When he did eventually catch a wave, that was both a turning point in Tom Blake's life and Twentieth Century surfing.

    Waikiki, 1924-25

    Stemming from his encounter with Duke Kahanamoku the several years previously, and seeing newsreels of the Duke and others surfing in Waikiki, Blake headed for Hawai`i, in 1924, to see what it was all about. That year, Adolf Hitler was sentenced to five years imprisonment and was released after eight months. While in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf.

    Blake's first visit to Hawai`i, at age 22, began a love affair with the Islands that would last at least up to the mid-1950s. Waikiki was to become for Blake a sacred place. He wrote of his relationship to Waikiki and the Hawaiian people in his book Hawaiian Surfboard:

    "Waikiki beach has been kind to me. The native Hawaiians have been kind. I have had the honor of riding the big surfs with these Hawaiians - I have sat at their luaus - watched their most beautiful women dance the hulas - I have been invited into their exclusive Hui Nalu surfriding club - a club for natives only. I have held the honor position (bow seat) riding waves in the outrigger canoe - the honor position (holding down the outrigger) on the sailing canoe. I have been initiated into the secrets of spear fishing far out on the coral reefs.

    "I have learned much from these people..."

    However, these honors would come a little later. Blake's first introduction to Hawai`i, in 1924, was brief - less than a year. Before he left, he took a close look at the ancient Hawaiian olo and alaia boards at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu. He would later help restore these same boards, build replicas of them, and use the ancient templates to craft his own innovative designs.

    Malibu First Ridden, 1926

    Back in Santa Monica, Tom started building his own surfboards. One of the first people to own a Blake surfboard was Sam Reid. He and Blake would be the first surfers to ride California's most central of surf meccas, Malibu Point, in September of 1926.

    Originally home to the members of the Chumash and Gabrielino tribes, Malibu had been inhabited for approximately 7,000 years. The word "Malibu" is a corruption of the Chumash word Maliwu, the name of the Chumash village located at the mouth of Malibu Canyon, near Malibu Point. Following the area's takeover by the Spanish in 1805, 13,316 acres of shoreline and adjacent mountain land were granted by the Spanish government to Jose Tapia, a former soldier, as Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit.

    Frederick and May Rindge purchased the ranchland in 1887, following the American takeover from the Spanish. The Rindge family soon began an intense struggle with the new state of California to seclude Malibu by preventing construction of the intended public highway planned to run along the coast.

    "The story of Malibu is very interesting," noted 1966 world champion surfer Nat Young, in his 1983 History of Surfing. "Rancho Malibu had been handed down to Rhoda May Ringe [sic] in 1905 when her husband Frederick died. She built her own railroad from the pier in Malibu to the northern end of her ranch at the Ventura County line. In 1926 Rhoda May Ringe was forced to give up." Before she did so, she had gone as far as hiring armed guards to keep out trespassers and dynamiting highway construction attempts. She eventually exhausted her financial resources in court battles, which she lost. The state opened the highway through Malibu in 1929. First known as the Roosevelt Highway, it is now what we all know as "Highway 1," or the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).

    "She had fought a battle with the authorities," continued Young, writing of Rhoda May Rindge, "for 17 years," to preserve her 26 miles of coastal land. Mrs. Rindge "had been ridiculed by the press for standing in the way of p rogress, and had gone four times to the California Supreme Court." In the process, "She completely exhausted her considerable fortune."

    What became known as the "Malibu Colony" began when May Rindge began leasing her shoreline property to writers and entertainers. The exclusive community is now inhabited by movie stars, musicians and other celebrities. "It's interesting to consider," pondered Young, "that had [she] gone along with government access to her land she would probably have been able to keep her ranch and thus all the coastal land from Topanga to the Ventura County line." This is certainly one of the most beautiful stretches of coastal California.

    Toward the end of the period of Rhoda May Rindge's battle with the State of California, in September 1926, Tom Blake and Sam Reid made their foray into Malibu. Reid recalled the day vividly:

    "Visualize, if you can, a beautiful September day in California. On this day, the first wave was ridden at what was then Malibu Ranch, stretching from Las Flores Canyon to Oxnard, and owned by Samuel K. Rhindge [sic]. The coast hiway was then a two lane road, dirt most of the way. Tom Blake had stopped by the Santa Monica Swimming Club to pick me up. In those days, cowboys with guns and rifles still rode the Malibu Ranch, and the gate at Las Flores Canyon had a 'Forbidden -- No Trespassing' sign on it. We took our 10' redwoods out of the Essex rumble seat and paddled the mile to a beautiful white crescent-shaped beach that didn't have a foot print on it. No buildings and, of course, no pier! There was no audience but the seagulls."

    Tom Blake recalled that, "the Malibu Ranch had recently opened-up. Sam and I drove up there. The road was black topped. I had previously noted surf there. The day we arrived, the waves were about 3' high. The area was deserted except for seagulls and pelicans and the Rhindge [sic] house. To be the first to ride it, I caught a 3-foot wave. We played around in it for an hour or so. Real exclusive riding."

    The boards ridden that day were of varnished solid California redwood. A rockerless plank, Reid's board dimensions were 10' 1" x 22". The nose was later laminated with post World War II fiberglass and is on display at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.

    Ancient Templates, 1926

    In 1926, Tom turned vegetarian and returned to Hawai`i. Drawing on his previous but brief studies in 1924, Tom took another look at Hawaiian chief Abner Paki's boards, housed in the Bishop Museum on O`ahu. He now turned his attention to utilizing the ancient templates. "Strange as it may seem," he wrote, these "three old-style Hawaiian surfboards of huge dimensions and weight have hung on the walls of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu for twenty years or more without anyone doing more than wonder how in the world these great boards were used, and were they not too long and heavy to be practicable."

    According to the Nineteenth Century Hawaiian historian David Malo, the olo was primarily made from wili wili, which contradicts the fact that the only true olo boards - Paki's - in existence were made from hard wood. To Blake's knowledge, also, the olo, "or long type board, was not usually made of the hardwoods from koa and breadfruit trees, but of the soft, light wood of the wili wili tree. Those koa boards of chief Paki's in the Bishop Museum are really a bit too heavy, although handling well in the water, and riding the big swells in a good manner."

    Blake's eventual restoration of Paki's boards is of great historical importance, not only for restorative reasons, but because it ultimately lead to Blake's development of the hollow board.

    "I... had the privilege, and hard work, of restoring Paki's museum boards to their original condition," Tom wrote. "For twenty years or more they had been hanging or tied with wire against the stone wall on the outside of the museum, covered with some old reddish paint and rather neglected.

    "My inquiries into the art of surfriding disclosed to me the true value of these two old koa boards. They are the only two ancient surfboards of authentic olo design known to be in existence today.

    "I made an appeal to Mr. Bryan, curator of the museum [presumably in 1924], to restore the boards to their former unpainted finish and begged a more worthy location for their display in the museum. Permission was refused by the directors on the grounds that I might injure the evident antiquity of Paki's boards. After two years [probably 1926], I made a second appeal, and was granted permission to restore them and given promise of a more suitable location inside the building to keep them.

    "In the restoration of Paki's old boards, I discovered that they are undoubtedly much older than anyone suspected. In fact, they were probably already antiques when Paki acquired them...

    "Underneath the old red paint was several coats of blue paint, and underneath that were hard layers of a sand colored paint, and underneath that in many spots was marine deck seam compound filling in worm eaten parts of the board. On the largest board, part of the tail was rebuilt of California redwood to give the board its original shape."

    Blake continued:

    "Paki, according to Stokes, was born on Molokai in 1808, and lived until 1855. It was probably around 1830 when Paki was man enough to handle these big boards. The old whaling ships were sometimes seen in Honolulu harbor then and the several kinds of paint underneath the old red surface, also the ship's deck seam compound and redwood tail patch were available even before 1830.

    "Therefore, I assume that Paki dug up these two fine old discarded worm-eaten boards, had the redwood patch put on one, then deck caulking compound and paint on both, and painted them, so he could use them himself.

    "In their restored condition, the worn holes and patches show clearly under the varnish finish. Two fine examples of a now extinct design are these two old boards on which Chief Paki once rode the Kalahuewehe [sic] surf at Waikiki."

    "It is said," Blake went on, "that Paki would not go surfriding unless it was too stormy for anyone else to go out. His reputation of going out only in big surf is the natural thing when a man gets beyond his youth. Today, it takes big waves to get the old timers out on their boards."

    The restored olo boards were in stark contrast to the surfboards of Blake's time, which were built mostly "by Caucasians who fostered the revival at Waikiki," wrote Ben Finney and James Houston in their 1966 landmark work Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings. "They were some seven feet long and resembled the short alaia. They were two-to-three inches thick, flat on top, with a slightly convex bottom and rounded edges. The native woods, koa and wiliwili, were replaced by redwood, pine and other imports. As a finish, marine varnish was used, rather than burnt kukui-nut juice. Although soon superseded, these short pioneer craft mark the beginning of the transition to modern boards, using the old alaia as a departure point."

    "Another board," Finney and Houston added, "similar to [the] first alaia copy, appeared in 1910. It was slimmer and longer. Such boards were used for at least twenty years after their introduction. In 1926 the surfboard grew another foot or two. By this time a pointed nose was popular."

    According to Finney and Houston, there had been "few attempts to duplicate the kingly olo..." In fact, there had been no attempts until Tom Blake came along. By the time of surfing's revival at Waikiki in the beginning of the century, there only existed bellyboards and modified alaias - and even these were few in number.

    "Bellyboards, modern alaias and planks were the deal," Gary Lynch emphasized of what was being ridden even as late as 1926. "Blake changed the whole scene by working on them [Paki's boards]. He single-handedly, without really giving it much thought, changed surfing in a massive huge way. It was because of this we are doing what we do on boards.

    "That action he took on reproducing the olo and adding fins [in 1935] was probably the two most significant [surfing development] achievements of the century. You have to look at it in reference to the era, but, still, no one man ever has done so much with so little."

    Drilled-Hole Hollow Boards, 1926-29

    Tom Blake was the first - and one of the very few, even to this day! - of the Twentieth Century surfers to shape boards from the ancient olo design. After restoring Chief Paki's boards for the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Tom went on to build replicas for himself. In an article entitled, "Surf-riding -- The Royal and Ancient Sport," published in a 1930 edition of The Pan Pacific, he wrote:

    "I... wondered about these boards in the museum, wondered so much that in 1926 I built a duplicate of them as an experiment, my object being to find not a better board, but to find a faster board to use in the annual and popular surfboard paddling races held in Southern California each summer."

    In a personally annotated copy of his book Hawaiian Surfboard, Tom noted in his own handwriting, that he kind of stumbled onto the hollow board in the process of shaping the olo design for himself. This was to be the first of many Tom Blake innovations contributed to the world of surfing. It began as an effort to lighten the weight of the surfboard. On a whim, Blake took his 16 foot olo replica board and, "drilled it full of holes to lighten and dry it out, then plugged them up. Result: accidental invention of the first hollow surf-board."

    He had bought a solid slab of redwood 16-feet long, 2-feet wide and 4-inches thick. It weighed around 150 pounds, initially. As Nat Young tells it, "he drilled hundreds of holes in" the surfboard, "from top to bottom, each hole removing a cylinder of wood four inches long. Then he left the holey board season for a month. After the wood had fully dried he covered the top and bottom surfaces with a thin layer of wood, sealing the holes. He then shaped the board in a design adapted from the ancient Hawaiians. It finished up 15' long, 19" wide and 4" thick, looking like a cigar. Its weight was only 100 lbs, because it was partly hollow."

    in 1928, armed with his olo replica, Blake won the first Pacific Coast Surfing Championships - which he helped organize - held at Corona Del Mar, on the east side of Newport Bay. "He used two boards that particular day," according to Nat Young, "one for paddling and one for riding waves. Some old-timers say it was the first time they ever saw a board turned... The turning maneuver was executed by dragging either the left or the right leg in the water." Board length was 16 feet; weight was 120 pounds.

    "When I appeared with it for the first time before 10,000 people gathered for a holiday and to watch the races, it was regarded as silly," recalled Blake of his huge drilled-hole olo design paddleboard. "Handling this heavy board alone, I got off to a poor start, the rest of the field gaining a thirty-yard lead in the meantime. It really looked bad for the board and my reputation and hundreds openly laughed. But a few minutes later it turned to applause because the big board led the way to the finish of the 880-yard course by fully 100 yards."

    Top surfers were to compete for the Pacific Coast Championships eight times between 1928 and 1941, until World War II torpedoed the event.

    But Blake's eyes were on the Islands. "My dream was to introduce, or revive, this type of board in Hawaii where surfboard racing and riding is at its best," he wrote in the 1935 edition of Hawaiian Surfboard. "This seems to have materialized..."

    Blake's Cigar, 1929

    In the later part of 1929, after three years of experimenting with his hollow boards, Tom Blake switched construction to a chambered-type hollow board.

    "I introduced at Waikiki a new type of surfboard," Blake wrote of his innovative hollow surfboard. It was, "new so the papers said, and so the beach boys said, but in reality the design was taken from the ancient Hawaiian type of board," his 1926 replicas of them, and "also from the English racing shell. It was called a 'cigar board,' because a newspaper reporter thought it was shaped like a giant cigar."

    Of Blake's hollow olo-inspired design, Dr. D'Eliscu of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote in 1929 that, "The old Hawaiian surfboard has again made its appearance at Waikiki beach modeled after the boards used in the old days. A practice trial was held yesterday at the War Memorial Pool, and to the surprise of the officials, the board took several seconds off the Hawaiian record for one hundred yards." Blake referred to this modern olo design as the racing model; in essence a paddleboard. He built what he termed the riding model surfboard, "Okohola," a month later, in December 1929.

    The hollow paddleboards and surfboards Blake now made, "differed from the olo in that they were flat-decked, built of redwood, and hollow," wrote Finney and Houston many years later. "They were excellent for paddling and also successful in the surf. Like the olo they were well adapted to the glossy rollers at Waikiki. A man could catch a wave far out beyond the break, while the swell was still a gentle, shore-rolling slope, and the board would slide easily along the wave, whether it grew steep and broke, or barely rose and flattened out again. From the performance of Blake's boards many otherwise unknown details of ancient olo technique were determined."

    "Blond Tom Blake... was a haole who accepted the challenge," related Duke Kahanamoku to his biographer, Joe Brennan in 1968, in their book World of Surfing, "and proved to be one of the finest boardmen to walk the beach. Daring and imaginative he always was. He, like myself, was driven with the urge to experiment." Addressing Blake's hollow racing paddleboard, Duke acknowledged that, "He was the one who first built and introduced the paddleboard - a big hollow surfing craft that was simple to paddle and picked up waves easily but was difficult to turn. It had straight rails, a semi-pointed tail, and laminated wood for the deck. For its purpose it was tops."

    "This board was really graceful and beautiful to look at," Blake wrote proudly of his paddleboard, "and in performance was so good that officials of the Annual Surfboard Paddling Championship immediately had a set of nine of them built for use during the 1930 Hawaiian Paddling Championship races. The half mile record of seven minutes and two seconds, was cut that year to four minutes and forty-nine seconds and the hundred yard dash was reduced from thirty-six and two-fifths seconds to thirty-one and three-fifths seconds. This made me the 1930 champion in the senior events and, incidentally, the new record holder. But as is true in yacht and other similar racing, I won because I had a superior board. This was the first cured or hollowed out [paddle] board to appear at Waikiki. As the racing rules allowed unrestricted size and design, I staked my chances on this hollow racer whose points were proven for now all racing boards are hollow."

    "Blake won every paddle board race he entered for several years," wrote Nat Young.

    One of his most impressive was the Catalina race, which Blake did not really consider a race as much as a test and endurance. "Blake did not consider the Catalina paddle a race," clarified his biograher Gary Lynch. "He said it was a demonstration of the ability of his new Rogers paddleboards. To prove how they could perform in long distance rescue work. Also it was to prove the stamina of men who paddled then. Pete [Peterson] and Wally [Burton] did not train like Blake did for that. He said it was not a race and unfair to call it one. Wally and Pete did Tom a favor really. I believe Wally paddling was actually a last minute deal."

    Blake admitted that some would term it "a race from the California mainland to Catalina Island over a 26-mile course, across open water." Blake made the trek in 5 hours and 53 minutes. "There's an average of about 5 miles per hour," Blake continued, "with only the hands and arms to propel the hollow surfboard." The two other paddlers that went out with Tom - Pete Peterson and Wally Burton - came in later, at about 6.5 hours.

    Tom Blake's innovations inspired others to experiment, including Duke Kahanamoku. Some builders began "using alternating strips of laminated pine or redwood, instead of one or several planks of the same wood," historians Finney and Houston noted. "These striped boards combined the strength of pine with the light weight of redwood and were believed to be more functional as well as more attractive. About this time lightweight balsa boards were first tried, but were dismissed as too light and fragile for practical use."

    As Duke tells it, the 10-foot redwood plank that he and the boys rode at the beginning of the century had been "in vogue until 1924 when Lorrin Thurston, one of Hawaii's most enthusiastic surfriders, appeared with a twelve-foot board. To Thurston also goes the credit of introducing the balsa wood board in 1926. It was really a revival of the wili wili boards used by the old Hawaiian chiefs except for design. The ten to twelve-foot boards were used exclusively until 1929 when I built a successful [Blake inspired] sixteen-foot board, which is handled quite the same as the old Hawaiian boards, and I feel sure will put surfriding on much the same scale as it was before the white man came."

    Duke went on to say that Tom Blake's first experiments had been initially "predicated on the belief that faster rides would be generated by heavier boards. But the turning problem became bigger with the size of the board; a prone surfer was compelled to drag one foot in the water on the inside of the turn, and this only contributed to loss of forward speed. If standing, he had to drag an arm over the side, and with the same result of diminishing momentum.

    "Paddleboards are still with us today, and they are obviously here to stay. Some fantastic records have been established with them. And the sport of paddleboarding has naturally drawn some outstanding men to its ranks. It is a long list, a gallant list."

    Recapping the evolution of it all, Blake's first hollow board "was purely for racing," Blake explained, "and I soon followed it with a riding board sixteen feet long. The new riding board model was a great success ["Okohola"]." Blake added with some pride that, "Duke Kahanamoku built his great 16-foot hollow redwood board along about the same time. He is an excellent craftsman and shapes the lines and balance of his boards with the eye; he detects its irregularities by touch of the hand.

    "I feel, however," Blake added in defference to the Father of Modern Surfing, "that Duke has some appreciation of the old museum boards and from his wide experience in surfriding and his constructive turn of mind would have eventually duplicated them, regardless of precedent."

    Hollow Victory, 1930

    In the beginning, hollow paddleboards and hollow surfboards were not enthusiastically embraced by everyone. Even later, when hollow boards became the standard at many beaches, solid boards were preferred. Take a look at the pictures in Doc Ball's California Surfriders, taken during the 1930s, and see for yourself.

    It is ironic that Blake's world record-breaking wins in both the 100-yard and half mile paddling events of the 1930 Hawaiian Surfboard Paddling Championships put him into disfavor in some Hawaiian surfing circles.

    "The drill out board," Gary Lynch clarified, "was the board he won the 1928 race with but he built that style in 1926. The 1929 model was a different animal altogether...

    "He beat those guys really bad," Gary emphasized the importance of the 1930 race both for Blake and paddling. "In fact, the winner of the '29 meet would not race against him in '30 when he set the two world's records."

    Even though Blake "was among the first California surfers to adapt to the Hawaiian surfing scene," wrote Chris Ahrens, he "fell out of favor with some of the locals when he won... beating the best paddlers of the day. A humble man, Blake was characteristically modest about the victory, giving more credit to the hollowed out board (which he had designed) than to his great conditioning."

    For Blake, "it was a 'hollow' victory," underscored his friend Sam Reid, playing on words in a detailed surfing memoir published in a 1955 edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. "Blake had hollowed out his 16-foot cigar board to a 60 pound weight, compared with an average 100 to 125 pounds weight of the other 9 boards in the 100."

    Reid went on to say that many of the "purist" Hawaiian surfers and distance paddlers cried "foul" on January 1, 1930, and demanded that only traditionally shaped and solid paddleboards be valid for racing. Other paddlers lobbied for the new design, claiming, rightfully, that it "marked the beginning of a new era in surfing and paddling."

    "At first they tried to disqualify him in '29," Blake's biographer Gary Lynch told me, "saying that he was not using a surf board. They did not know what his paddleboard was. They had not seen anything like that... It even got crazier in the New Years day '30 race. By later '30, his paddleboards were full pointers..."

    "Reverberations of the 'hollow board' tiff were heard from one end of the Ala Wai to the other," recalled Reid, "and echoes can still be heard at Waikiki even today -- 25 years later. At a meeting of the three (surfing) clubs, Outrigger, Hui Nalu and Queens, held immediately after the disputed races (of 1930), it was decided that henceforth there would be no limit whatever on (the design) of paddleboards." Nevertheless, so much resentment over his lightweight designs remained that Blake never competed in the Hawaiian Surfboard Championships after 1930.

    The positive outcome of all this hoopla was that within a year, surfboard shapers were experimenting with all sorts of sizes, shapes, weights and materials, including airplane fabric boards, canvas boards, hydroplane bottoms and converted single sculls. "Imagination of design," Reid remembered, "ran riot."

    "The hollow surfboard was really popular from '32-'38," Gary Lynch wrote. "A 1937 photo of the whole Waikiki Beach Patrol line up for their photos reveals that every guard except two has a hollow board of Blake design! What does that say. For rescue work they were king."

    "Those paddleboards were quite an innovation at first, but were finally relegated chiefly to lifeguard work on account of their extreme buoyancy," Duke told his biographer in 1968. "Some surfers, by the way, still prefer them. Most, however, still searching and experimenting, turned to redwood and balsa for better stability and easier turning capacity. Ten- and thirteen-foot redwood square tails were developed, and many of them ran well under one hundred pounds."

    Ka-lehua-wehe Surf, 1930s

    By 1930, Tom Blake was living in Hawai`i and continuing with his innovative surfboard and paddleboard designs. He also worked as a beach boy with the "Waikiki Beach Patrol," and branched out in his experimentations. That year, Tom invented water-proof housings for cameras for use in in-water photography. Much of his surf photography can be seen in his book Hawaiian Surfboard, published in 1935 (later reprinted under the title Hawaiian Surfriders, 1935), and in a few National Geographic magazines printed around that time.

    Blake's pioneering surf photography inspired legendary surf photographer and Blake bro Doc Ball to get involved. In 1931, Doc saw a Blake photograph printed in an issue of the Los Angeles Times and that was it for him. Blake is prominently featured in Doc Ball's photographic book, California Surfriders, 1946.

    In the early 1930s, Blake described the boards that were stored at the Outrigger Canoe Club - the center of surfing in Waikiki, first established in 1907 - during his tour of the beach:

    "At the club is to be found a row of some two hundred upright surfboard lockers, filled with boards of all sizes, shades and colors; the average being ten feet long, twenty-three inches wide, three inches thick; quite flat on top and bottom, with edges rounded and weighing up to seventy-five pounds.

    "They are made of California redwood, white cedar, white sugar pine and a few of balsa wood. Ninety per cent being of redwood because of its lightness, strength and cheapness. Ten dollars will buy the rough plank to make a redwood board. Some of the boards are hollowed out and decked over to lighten them."

    It was in August of 1930 that Tom Blake had his "longest ride on a surfboard [at least up to 1935]. I was surfing at first break Ka-lehua-wehe out there alone that day; the waves running about 25 feet high [probably 8-9 foot, Hawaiian]. After an hour or so of fine riding I was waiting for a real big one to 'go home on.' I caught the sixth of the next set, rode straight towards shore for three hundred yards, then to my surprise saw that the wave was steepening up to my left; this offered a chance to get by the end of the shallow coral and ride parallel to it; which I just barely did, having to squeeze to make the breaks, for a ride of about eight hundred yards or into Cunha break." Blake identified Ka-lehua-wehe as beyond Outside Cunha, the furthest break off the beach at Waikiki.

    "Today Ka-lehua-wehe surf is coming into vogue again," continued Blake. "It breaks only when big swells are running but is the aristocrat of all surfs. However, as yet, not ten per cent of the surfriders are familiar with its hazardous, thrilling rides. The fact that the old Hawaiian chiefs gathered at the beach to ride it sets their standard of sportsmanship up. The prevailing custom of using short or ten foot long boards until 1930 had much to do with not riding this surf. It is a mile paddle from the Outrigger Club and with a short board the rider has to get dangerously near the break to catch these big waves, with the result [that] when one mentioned [about] going to Ka-lehua-wehe [to] surf[,] excuses come thick and fast. However, my new hollow board makes the paddle out there simple and the swells can be easily picked up, just as the ancients could do with their olo boards of wili wili and koa. So those who have hollow boards are taking to the big Kalahuewehe surf more and more each year and eventually will have the sport of big wave riding as popular as in olden days."

    "A great danger at Ka-lehua-wehe," continued Blake, "is losing your board and having to go in over the shallow coral reef to the quiet water after it. The rider then has to locate a narrow channel, about one hundred feet wide to get inside the reef. There are three places out Castle way to easily get inside and it is wise to become familiar with these channels in quiet, calm water. These channels through the solid coral are created by nature. The fresh water streams from the mountains, which run into the ocean at these points, keep the coral from growing in such places, thus the channels. Fresh water kills coral. Boys sometimes get cut by crossing the reef for their boards instead of locating a channel to swim through.

    "There is little variation in the tides at Waikiki beach; however, at extreme low tide the jagged coral reef is exposed in many places. Disturbances at sea sometimes draw the water off the shallow reefs and it returns with various degrees of force and occasionally to amount to a tidal wave..."

    "I still remember the day [also] in 1930 [when] Duke caught the big swells of Ka-lehua-wehe surf with his new long hollow board. I had told him about my luck with the new sixteen-foot 'okahola' [sic] and knew he could duplicate it with the new long board he was making. It lay around half-finished for months. He finally finished it and we went out to Ka-lehua-wehe on the first good day. About this time Duke had gone stale on surfing over here. The ten-foot board held no thrill for him and besides he had been in Los Angeles much of the time. There we had often surfed Balboa together. Here on Canoe surf he had found his new long board O.K., but was a bit skeptical about Ka-lehua-wehe surf where we were now headed.

    "The first big swell Duke caught went to his head like wine. He yelled and shouted at the top of his voice as he rode in. He was happy. It put new life into him and ever since his attitude towards surfriding has been as keen as when he was a boy. And why not? He came into his heritage, the big green swells of Ka-lehua-wehe, and the olo board of his ancestors, the chiefs and kings of old Hawaii... five years later -- Duke still rides the same board. He handles it so carefully on land, washes it off with fresh water always after use. His duties as the sheriff of Honolulu, and his gasoline station business keep him very busy. But not too busy to ride a few fast ones outside when they break."

    "Duke, Tom Blake and all those guys were trimmers," observed Rabbit Kekai, who began surfing in the Waikiki area in the 1920s. "They used to stand, pose and get up and just go for miles. That's how they'd go. They'd pick up the wave on their 16 foot boards and be out in the green the whole way, and never stay close to the white water... just maybe a little drop down to pick up some more speed. It was all angle, they'd never cut back."

    Surfer Lifestyle Pioneer

    Tom Blake fell in love with the Hawaiian Islands, its people, its culture and environment because he found he could, "live simple and quietly here. I can live well, without the social life. I can dress as I please, for comfort, usually it's a pair of canvas sneakers, light trousers and a sleeveless polo shirt with swimming trunks all day. I like the Islands because I can keep one hundred percent sun-tan here the year around, rest and sleep for hours in the wonderful sunshine each day... In my yard [I] grow bananas, avocados, mangoes, papaia and luxurious ferns and flowers including a stately Royal palm which is majesty in itself in the moonlight.

    "I like it because of the natural beauty of everything here, the very blue sky, very white clouds, very green mountains, clothed in foliage to their ridges... The coco palms waving in the clean trade winds, the colors of the water on the coral reef, greet my eyes each day as I near the beach and when the giant waves of the Ka-lehua-wehe surf are breaking white, far from shore, it means royal sport is waiting and I actually break into a run to get to the Outrigger Club, don trunks and get out my favorite surfboard of teak wood. I like the opportunity of studying and seeing the great mixture of races gathered here, each one retaining many of their old customs of eating, dress and living. I pick a custom or two from each race to use at my convenience... It's a great place to be a bachelor."

    To a significant degree, Tom Blake pioneered key elements of the surfer lifestyle that endures to present day. "Tom's contribution and lifestyle was the makings of 'the beach culture' as we know it," Gary Lynch emphasized to me. "Not merely the surfers lifestyle [that other writers] and the rest of these people who know little about him write. It is all much bigger than that. The traveling, diet, dress, and more was a style he introduced to California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and visiting mainland surfers to Hawaii. It was a combination of how the relaxed actors dressed at the beach and what was practical at the beach as well as financially viable. There are photos of him in different modes of dress. Hawaii was more intense with heat and sun. California was cooler. The clothes had to travel well. He always kept it simple."

    Interestingly, Blake advocated eating natural foods way before it became fashionable. "Actually," Gary told me, "there was a fairly strong underground health movement going then. That's what started him going on it... The contrast was the Roaring '20s drugs and alcohol and sex vs. a life like Blake began to lead."

    "He was a strict vegetarian and a marvelous athlete, swimming just seconds behind Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weismuller, in fact even beating the Duke once," echoed Nat Young. "Duke and Blake were great friends and rivals and spent much time together, surfing, attempting world records, and acting in the early days of Hollywood. Weismuller is remembered for his role as Tarzan, the Duke as 'Old Ironsides' and 'The Medicine Man' and numerous parts as a Hawaiian chief, and Blake as a stuntman for Clark Gable and others."

    "Above all," wrote surf writer Sam George in another tribute to Blake published after his passing, "he was the first Mainlander to develop the attitude - the commitment to a way of life - that all real surfers have adopted since."

    The Skeg, 1935

    In 1931, Tom Blake went on to invent the sailboard. "Actually," Gary corrected me, "1931 was the start of the invention of the sailboard. That was gradual. Tom used an umbrella at first, then a crude sail and so on until a first version of the first complete 'sailing surfboard', as he called it, was up and running and even in competition by 1935. 1940 was the first production models by L.A. Ladder."

    The year 1931 also saw Blake's first production surfboard, manufactured by Thomas Rogers Company, Venice, California. The 1931 hollow board now featured transverse bracing.

    Around 1934-35, the Robert Mitchell Company Tom Blake boards featured the "Tom Blake Approved" logo. Later on, the 1940 version of the "Hawaiian Hollow Surfboard," U.S. Patent Number 1872230, was manufactured by the Los Angeles Ladder Company, This model also was "Tom Blake Approved."

    Hollow boards, camera housings and sailboards were soon overshadowed by Tom's application of fin to surfboard. One of his most enduring contributions, the surfboard skeg - or "fin," - eventually caused a quantum shift in surfboard riding and development.

    As Blake told it, in 1935, he tore a fixed keel off a washed-up speedboat and reattached it onto the bottom of a surfboard. Although not readily adopted by most surfers until a decade later, the skeg went on to be an integral part of surfboard design.

    The fin was initially used by Blake at Waikiki. "When I first went to the Islands, they used wide-tailed boards and they used to spinout on a steep, critical slide," he recalled. "I figured it would be easy to correct that problem, just add something - a keel. Finally, I got around to it. You didn't hurry things up over there. You were having too much fun surfing every day. Finally, I put a fin on the board and it worked fine. It was a shallow fin, about 4" deep and a foot long. It took ten years for that thing to catch on and then the boards kept getting lighter and smaller and [then] the fin became more effective for steering."

    Less than a year after he introduced the skeg, "others were trying fins, mostly crude items, but some were using two and three fin setups," wrote Chris Ahrens. "Blake himself experimented with all types of fin shapes, and used a variety of materials, including metal. Still it took a full ten years for the fin to gain acceptance with most surfers."

    Blake's Influence

    "You have to step back," Gary Lynch told me, "and think about Blake's most enduring and significant invention..." As important as the skeg was, "Fins were already around, but he placed one on a surfboard."

    "His most significant invention was the rescue paddleboard which has saved tens of thousands of lives. That was his true invention that has helped humanity to this very day.

    "I would also point out that the healthy 'surfers lifestyle' was also significant like the fin to all the board heads out there.

    "We have to think of a much larger picture than just surfing when we think of Blake's life's work."

    Upon his visits back to the mainland, Tom Blake was often afforded the special recognition he deserved. A case in point was September 21, 1932:

    "A mule drawn wagon with two very long, heavy boards of the period sticking far out the back, pulls up to the point [Malibu] carrying Tom Blake and Pete Peterson," wrote Craig Stecyk. "The armed ranch guards have again allowed them access to the surf. Perhaps the fact that Blake was the first to surf here back in 1926 allows him such special privilege. While the two enjoy the b reath-taking right slides, in downtown Los Angeles the Olympic Games are in progress and athletes from around the world perform for many tens of thousands. Here at Malibu the boys enjoy their sport absolutely alone."

    Blake's influence stretched well outside Hawai`i and California, to the East Coast of the United States and Australia.

    For example, Dudley and Bill Whitman, Florida's first known surfers, began on belly boards around 1932. Around 1933-34, the Whitmans were exposed to "the famous Tom Blake hollow board," which was "fairly well accepted at that time," recalled Dudley Whitman. "Of course, eventually it became the most popular board in Hawaii..."

    Tom Blake, while touring in Florida, "came up to see my brother and me because he understood we were riding Hawaiian surfboards. He became one of our lifelong friends."

    Back in California, Blake would sometimes crash-out at Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison's, in Capo Beach, California, circa 1936. "I had a garage with balsa shavings a foot thick all over the floor," Whitey recalled. "Tom Blake and everybody would come down and sleep there."

    Hollow Board Refinements

    Blake continued to experiment with his hollow board construction. His 1920s drilled hole hollows were replaced with 1930s chambered models. Perfected in 1931 and manufactured by Rogers beginning in 1932, Blake's chambered hollow boards were no longer cigar shaped, but rather a "lighter, point-tailed model, built up of hollow compartments," documented Finney and Houston. "Because of its ease in paddling and in catching waves, it became a favorite in Hawaii and California," especially among beginning surfers. This refined hollow compartment board was used until the late 1940s.

    With the refinements came the recognition that this stuff needed protecting.

    "After development of the hollow boards in 1929," Blake wrote in Hawaiian Surfboard, "an acquaintance of mine advised me to have the idea patented. He unwittingly opened up a new field of experiment in the construction of a board of light pieces of lumber, instead of hollowing out of the solid timber. The first one appeared late in 1929. Although being allowed a U.S. Patent on the hollow surfboard, it was 1934 before a really good model of that [light wood pieces] construction was perfected."

    The Honolulu Star-Bulletin featured this further refinement of Blake's hollow board design, in an article on September 28, 1934: "Tom Blake, surfboard expert of Waikiki beach, has just returned from a year's tour of the mainland introducing his development, the new Hollow Surfboard, to the public on the mainland United States for lifeguard work, surfriding, paddling and aqua-planing purposes.

    "Blake holds the U.S. patent on the Hollow Surfboard and has been fortunate in interesting eastern capital and a large Cincinnati, Ohio, manufacturing concern in the making and distribution of his board.

    "A very enthusiastic reception of the Hollow Hawaiian Surfboard in the States is reported. Important life guard services throughout the country have adopted the Hollow Surfboard as standard equipment for rescue work, and, of course, life guards are becoming good surfers.

    "Extensive surfriding is already to be seen in Southern California and from Florida to Maine on the Atlantic coast.

    "The American Red Cross officials believe that the Hollow Surfboard is the greatest piece of life saving equipment ever developed and are giving him great help and support in his work, the inventor states.

    "In the new 1934 design, Mr. Blake feels he has at last produced an excellent riding board. It is short, broad, and buoyant; very easy to catch a wave with and paddle fast. When standing it goes into a slide or out with the slightest pressure of the feet.

    "The board is made of genuine African mahogany, the equivalent of Hawaiian koa wood.

    "The Robert Mitchell Mfg. Co., of Cincinnati, Ohio, are the exclusive manufacturers of the invention."

    The chambered hollow boards now averaged 60-pounds total weight, due to the utilization of the wood frames instead of drilled holes. The frame was covered with a thin layer of redwood. Departing with the drilled holes was the cigar shape.

    "And now in 1935," wrote Blake in that year, "it is with pleasure I see the surfriders at Waikiki, led by a keen young surfrider, Waldo Bowman, building their own hollow surfboards after my new, perfected, riding design... My prediction of 1932 is already materializing. The hollow surfboard is popular throughout the United States for pleasure and water life saving. It is to be seen from Maine to Florida and from Michigan to California... Already surfboard racing is [even] popular in Hongkong, China, I am told by Bill Butt who carried the idea from Waikiki. He says that there are about sixty boards there, built after plans I had published in a national mechanical magazine several years ago... There is surfboard racing in Italy. South America, Peru, has taken it up for lifeguard work. Also Canada.

    "Australia has also taken up the hollow surfboard, solid boards have been used there for many years. I have heard surfboards are used on the East Coast of Africa..."

    "The man responsible for Blake's hollow style of construction being introduced to Australia was Frank Adler, a Maroubra surfer who got the idea from an American magazine which showed Blake's board," corroborated Australian Nat Young. "Adler first used his hollow board in surf club competition in 1934 and easily out-paddled other surfers who were using solid boards. It didn't take long for the new hollow style of boardbuilding to catch on, and hollow boards began to dominate the Australian east coast surfing scene."

    Significantly, hollow boards only became a branch of the tree of surfboard design, not the trunk from which all other designs stemmed from afterwards. Even though Blake would go on to produce plastic boards in the 1950s and further develop rescue and paddleboard designs that continued in use through the 1950s and '60s, "His olo-inspired shapes led to no further board development," wrote Finney and Houston. Although big hollow boards dominated Hawaiian beaches for many years... the surfboard's evolution continued from the solid, wide-tailed designs that preceded Blake's experiments."

    That being said and understood, it is nevertheless important to recognize - as Gary Lynch is quick to point out - that, surfboards aside, "the rescue board and racing board of today much closer resembles Blake's original shapes than that of a solid plank board design."

    Lifesaving Equipment

    "The life saving angle was the main incentive for development of the improved light hollow surfboard," Tom Blake explained about his chambered construction, "and was encouraged by the gallant surfboard rescue made by Duke Kahanamoku and his surfing companions at Balboa, California, in 1925, when they saved the lives of 12 out of 17 people who composed a party of Riverside, California, merchants on a fishing trip, from drowning by bringing the floundering victims to shore on their surfboards after the fishing boat had swamped in a heavy surf at the entrance of the harbor. Duke [alone] saved eight with his surfboard."

    Blake credited "Mullahey of Honolulu and Valley Stream, N.Y." with making lifeguards at Jones Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island, N.Y., "'surfboard minded.'" Mullahey "battled for several years, as a lieutenant in the famous Jones Beach Life Guard Patrol, to show them the value of the surfboard in rescue work. So when I came along with the improved hollow boards they were ready and eager to accept them.

    "The life saving possibilities is what will carry the hollow surfboard to future world-wide use," predicted Blake. He was partially right. As surfboard design continued to evolve outside the sphere of his own experiments, the hollow paddle board was relegated mainly to the lifesaving services, officially adopted by the United States of America Red Cross Life Saving Division as the best method of saving lives in surf far from shore.

    Blake didn't stop there. He pursued possibilities of motorizing his boards and envisioned a future with radio-controlled hollow surfboards as standard issue, along with life boats and life preservers, on all steam and airships. This, obviously, was not to be. Yet, it is provacative to think that out of Blake's ideas, today's jetski can be considered a further evolution of his motorized surfboard idea, first attempted in the 1930s.

    Surfers of Blake's Day

    In the first book ever published on surfboard riding, Hawaiian Surfboard - later retitled Hawaiian Surfriders, 1935 - Tom Blake wrote of many of the surfers of his day. His praise and admiration was always there for Duke Kahanamoku and his five brothers, "who are among the best surfriders of Waikiki. (Written in 1930). There is seldom a day, when one or more of them is not out riding the waves. When a big surf comes they are very much in evidence and display great skill and cleverness in riding."

    "During our last big surf, which comes only three or four times a year, the Duke did some of the most beautiful riding I have ever seen on his new long board. In one instance, at zero break, he caught a twenty-five foot wave and rode across the face of it, through first break, clear into Queen's surf at a speed of about thirty miles an hour. On this four hundred yard ride Duke was able to catch the wave out farther than the boys with the short ten-foot boards and the weight of his one hundred and thirty pound board gave him additional speed which enabled him to beat the break to Queen's."

    Among the Waikiki crew, Blake credits the riding of "[Lorrin] Thurston, [Edric?] Cook, John D. [Kaupiko], B. Hollinger, Peter, Ammulo, Stear [Fred Steere?], Dad Center, G. Harris, Bolo, N. Castle, Minville and a few others. Miss Beatrice Newport was the best woman surfrider along about 1930. Her skill was equal to the average boy surfer... Since her time no girl has come near to the mastering of surf-riding as she did except perhaps Cesily Cunha. I've never seen any girl ride the Ka-lehua-wehe. [Marchien] Wehselau, [Dot] Hammond and [Babe] Gillespie were good women surfriders. Miss Frazier, a newcomer, is doing well."

    Surfing Elements of Blake's Day

    Surf riding was certainly different in Blake's day, but there were many things that remain the same, today. Aspects of surfing important to Tom included tandem riding, surfing at night and - of course - friendly competition.


    In his writings, Tom Blake often got into the kind of detail that makes it easy for a reader to travel back in time to the particular instance or event. In the following narrative - a description of tandem riding, circa early 1930s Waikiki - one almost gets the feeling we were there:

    "Take Sunday; good surf running, not big surf, and plenty of action is to be found out in the breakers...

    "The surfers gather around a certain dark patch of water. This is because the coral is higher there and the wave breaks steeper and is easier to catch. In the lull of the surf they have drifted with the tide and wind some ten or fifteen yards from the proper position and when a set of ground swells are sighted a few hundred yards outside general commotion prevails as they all maneuver for what they consider the best position to catch the wave.

    "As the swells approach they get steeper and most of the riders paddle for the first one but only seven manage to get it. They stand up on their boards and speed shoreward at an angle. About one hundred feet back is the second wave. Everyone left paddles for this. It proves very steep and easy to catch. Nearly all catch it, including two of the tandem parties.

    "Starting at the extreme right to describe the different riders here is what one sees. The first boy is no doubt inexperienced for he was too far over in the break which caused him and his board to 'pearl dive,' or go straight down towards the bottom, giving him a severe ducking and some valuable experience. This dive was caused partly because he did not slide or turn his board at an angle soon enough and partly because the wave was too steep and about to break at that point. The second rider just squeezed out of the steep part by a sharp tack to the left. He straightens out a bit to avoid colliding with the third board - a tandem. The boy on this board has a passenger. He stands up first, then assists his partner to her feet."

    "The fourth board also contains a tandem party," Blake continued. "On this one the girl rises first, then the boy stands up with her on his shoulders - very thrilling, indeed, for the girl. The next board has two girls for riders. They 'jam up,' after a short fifteen yard ride, with an inexperienced surfer and all three lose their boards and get ducked, barely missing getting hit by the loose boards. Rather brave these girls to be out there. The rest of the riders have pulled away some twenty yards. They are on the same wave and all manage to hold their boards, as this is one of the first rules of surfing. To loose a board means to swim maybe a hundred yards for it and also a loose board is dangerous to the other surfers. Of the dozen or so on this wave only two on the extreme left ride through the various breaks and do not get caught in the foam. Their ride has been a good one, perhaps two hundred yards long at a speed of about twenty-five miles an hour - eighteen miles an hour for the wave and seven for the slide.

    "There is another lull and all gather outside again to repeat the performance. It is good sport and the time flies. The water is so warm one is not conscious of it. The view of the palm trees on shore, the hotels, the mountains and clouds is marvelous and to me it is part of the pleasure of surfing. The hour before sunset is best of all for then the mountains take on all the shades of green imaginable while the clouds near them assume all shades of white and gray. Gayly colored rainbows are often seen in far off valleys."

    Writing about the prevailing paddle boarders of the day, Blake wrote, "Among the best known at surfboard paddle racing since 1915 are: Edric Cook, Tom Keakona, Fred Steere, Buster Crabbe, the Kahanamokus - Duke, Sam and Sargent, Sam Reid and Jack May. Among the women: Beatrice Newport, Dot Hammond, Marchien Wehselau, Babe Gillespie, Olga Clark and Mildred Slaight. In California, [Preston "Pete"] Peterson, [Wally] Burton, [Chauncy] Granston, [Lorrin "Whitey"] Harrison and Watkins have been outstanding in surfboard paddling. When standard size surfboards are used, surfboard paddling races afford keen sport. In Hawaii and California championship titles in various classes are contested each year."


    Special to Blake was surfing on the full moon. "Moonlight surfing is enjoyed for a few nights each month in the summer time when the big yellow tropical moon is at its fullest," Blake wrote. "It is truly a rare sport. In the moonlight incoming swells creep up like great shadowy creatures. One cannot realize the silence of the ground swells until waiting for them at night.

    "From the shore surfriders in the moonlight look strange and unreal when riding in on a breaker. One is never sure what it is until a rider lets out a yell. At night it is easy to yell because a person's nerves are on edge in spite of the fun and beauty of the scene."


    Blake wrote of the crude state of affairs competition was still in in his day. "Surfriding contests after the ancient rules have never been held in modern times in Hawaii. The sport has been confined to paddling races. On one occasion, about 1918, a riding contest was held, the winner being judged on form, etc. Everybody disagreed and that let them to believe surfriding contests were impracticable. One more riding contest was held [before 1935] but the surf failed to run on that day and it turned out to be a paddling race. These two contests have discouraged riding races. Now, however, I have met with success in talking up a revival of the sport under old rules, which would make a good contest and worthy champion."

    "The summer of 1935 will mark the revival of the once popular surfriding contest under the ancient rules," Blake continued, "to decide the champion of the Hawaiian Islands. Duke Kahanamoku has put up a cup, a genuine Hawaiian koa calabash, as a perpetual trophy, emblematic of the surfriding championship of the Islands to be contested for each year in first break surf at Waikiki beach.

    "The main object is to hold the race when first break, or big surf is running.

    "A simple point system of scoring will be used to decide the championship. It will favor and give the many who still have the solid redwood board an equal chance, by eliminating the paddling elements of the race. The rules will be as follows:

    "Contestants gather outside of buoy at first break. As a good set of waves appear starter fires a gun and the race begins. Surfriders then must ride (at least half way standing) to a second buoy inside canoe surf or about where the waves end. The first contestant in to the buoy will be credited with 10 points, the second with 9 points, the third with 8 points and so on until the tenth one in gets 1 point. Contestants then leisurely paddle out to the starting buoy and the same performance is repeated until five rides over the course have been made. The contestant who has the highest number of points wins..."

    "Besides the Duke Kahanamoku perpetual trophy," Blake went on, "gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded. There also will be a junior race, a women's race, a tandem race and novice race over a shorter or inside course.

    "Intense rivalry between the Queen's surfers, Hui Nalu club and Outrigger Canoe club will burn anew, as it has with competitions in the past. The Hui Nalu boys will be favorites in the senior events, however, as their club has among its members most of the oldest and cleverest riders on the beach. The field of entrants will be chosen from among the best riders of each club to avoid the course being over-run with the less experienced surfers. To win, the man will have to have a bit of luck, as there are so many riders who are top.

    "As big surf is good only two or four days at a stretch, a 24-hour notice will be given as to the date of the races. The time will be announced by radio, newspaper and the ever efficient word of mouth. News reels and still cameramen will be on hand to shoot the thrilling rides that always accompany big surf, so that the rest of the world may see the 'sport of kings' by picture.

    "Since 1918 riding contests have been held in Southern California, but often without proper selection of rules and judges. This condition encouraged the foundation of the new Kalahuewehe Surfboard Club, an honor society."

    You ARE Who You Hang With

    Tom Blake took modest pride in his associations. Of course, he was proud of his membership in both the Hui Nalu and Outrigger Canoe Club, but he wrote of a particular fondness of his being a charter member of the Kalahuewehe [sic] Surfboard Club. "To be eligible one must have ridden first break surf in the mainland U.S.A. The charter reads: 'An honor society whose object is to encourage the art of surfboard, with due respect to its originators, the ancient Hawaiians.'

    "The charter members are: Duke P. Kahanamoku, George Freeth, Haig Priest, Tom Blake, Preston Peterson, Chauncy Granstrom, Wally Burton, Bob Sides, Whitie Harrison, Tarzan Smith, Jerry Vultee, Arthur Vultee, Lee Jarvis, Rusty Williams, Grant Leonhuts, Bothwell, Willie Gregsby, Bill Herwig, Sam Reid, Keller Watson, Mullahey, Braithwate, John Smith, Sunny Ruppman.

    "These boys are the pioneer surfriders in the United States, all having ridden Balboa, California, surf," with the exception of three. Mullahey rode on Long Island, New York; J. Smith and Braithwate rode off Virginia; and in addition to riding Balboa, Duke Kahanamoku rode at Atlantic City and Ocean City, New Jersey, and in Nassau County, Long Island, New York, between 1912-18.

    "Among the new crop of boys from California, the best surfriders are: [Whitey] Harrison, [Gene] Tarzan Smith, [Bob] Sides, [Chauncy] Granstrom and [Wally] Burton."

    Later Years

    During World War II, Blake served in the Coast Guard for three years, teaching swimming, ocean rescue and munitions loading.

    Tom Blake's official biographer and close friend Gary Lynch remembers Blake as being "complex, but seeming simple, in a similar manner to a Haiku. He saw life as it was. He took it moment by moment and accepted things for what they were, never being disappointed when the things he loved changed. He realized that you have to find full enjoyment in the moment... He lived simply. When I first came to visit Tom, he only had one plate, one knife, one fork, one dish, and one chair. I went out and bought duplicates of these items so that I could share meals with him. After I left, he disposed of those duplicate items. Near the end of his life he even got rid of his chair."

    Tom Blake quit surfing full time in 1957, at age 55. Some people believe he backed off because to him the good surf spots were already overcrowded. Between 1960 and 1985, Blake traveled with the seasons, living in Malibu and the California and Arizona deserts. He finally returned to the Wisconsin woods, where he had grown up as a boy, in order to commune with nature under what he called "the blessed church of the open sky."

    I asked Gary Lynch about the seemingly incongruent direction of little to no surf for Blake in later years. Actually, I had written of this as a mystery to me and Gary corrected me:

    "Now that all these years have passed," Gary wrote in an email message, "I either remember more about my research and association with Tom or I am more mature and can put it in a clearer perspective.

    "Regarding the mystery you feel regarding how Tom stopped surfing regularly after age 55: It is important to inform your readers that Tom was water oriented all his life. He kept up his association with the water until death. In the end he was walking every day and living next to it."

    "After he came back from Hawaii and so-called 'stopped' surfing," Gary went on, "he still worked as an ocean lifeguard for another 10 years or so. At this time he still paddled his rescue boards regularly and made a few memorable rescues that were sensational. He paddled the Lakes every summer during this period also. He camped at the ocean or lakes up until his early 80's or thereabouts.

    "Tom always lived by the water except for his winter stops in the desert. So, I feel you left your readers thinking it was it was all over for Tom at age 55. This is not so. He was quite active up until his early 80's; often involved with water sports or water work. He did surf once and a while with Doc [in Northern California] and again in Hawaii in the early, mid, and later '60s.

    "You write as if surfing is everything in life. Like if you stop surfing your life has stopped. He was much larger than those thoughts or associations.

    "Hope this sheds some light on your understanding of Tom. GL."

    Tom Blake was interested not only in the sea, but in metaphysics. "Tom would read the Bible," recalls Gary, "but he would not come to the same conclusions as the average Baptist Minister. He believed as Einstein did, that 'matter can neither be created nor destroyed.' This is how he viewed eternal life. He referred to surfing as a worthy diversion; something which could help you to think about your destiny and put you in touch with nature. He would laugh in conversation at times, but he did not take time on trivial things. When I first met him he would give me short answers to questions and not elaborate on them if I asked again. Or, he might not respond to me at all if he thought what I was saying was trivial. He was not being arrogant, but he helped me to think about what I was saying and what was important."

    The surfing world lost one of its true pioneers of the Twentieth Century when Tom Blake died in Ashland, Wisconsin, on May 5, 1994.

    "Along the shore I wander, free,
    A beach comber at Waikiki,
    Where time worn souls who seek in vain,
    Hearts ease, in vagrant, wondering train.
    A beach comber from choice, am I,
    Content to let the world drift by,
    Its strife and envy, pomp and pride,
    I've tasted, and am satisfied."

    Sources Used In This Chapter:

    Chris Ahrens ~ Doc Ball ~ Duke Kahanamoku ~ Finney & Houston ~ Gary Lynch ~ "Hawai`ian Surfboard" ~ Otto Patterson ~ Preston "Pete" Peterson ~ "Surf-Riding, Its Thrills And Techniques" ~ Tom Blake ~ Tommy Zahn ~ Wally Froiseth ~ Malcolm Gault-Williams ~ Nat Young ~ SURFER magazine ~ The Surfer's Journal

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